Habit Formation, Integration and Change

Too much coffee? Smoking? Not enough exercise? Uncontrollable snacking? We all have that unhealthy habit we want to change. One morning, you wake up motivated. This week is the week. You’re going to work out, eat healthy, and sleep well. You feel great, and are on the right track to making change. Then somehow, a week later, you find yourself back on the couch, elbow deep in junk food, somehow feeling worse than before. We all know the feeling. So how do we change those pesky bad habits? Unfortunately, health interventions aren’t as simple as deciding that you want to make change. It takes both time and work. 

Changing Habits: A Model

How long does it take to change a habit? The Transtheoretical Model of behaviour change is a theory that can be applied to positive health behavioural changes1. There are 5 stages in this model:

  1. The Precontemplation Stage
    • In this stage, there is no intention to make change, or the need for change is denied. 
  2. The Contemplation Stage
    • In this stage, there is serious consideration to make change.
  3. The Preparation Stage
    • In this stage, there are small changes being made.
  4. The Action Stage
    • In this stage, there is active engagement in a habit for less than 6 months. 
  5. The Maintenance Stage
    • In this stage, there is regular engagement in a habit for more than 6 months. 

The stages often occur in cycling patterns, meaning it is likely to go back and forth between stages before reaching the maintenance stage. 

Understanding Habit Formation

Let’s dive a little deeper into the psychology around habit formation. Habitual behaviours are non-conscious processes carried through with minimal cognitive effort or awareness2. They are triggered by cues around us, learned through context dependant repetition2. The impulse to act comes from a learned association between a cue and an action2. Stimuli that have been rewarded take priority in the brain3. This was exemplified in the 2012 Graybiel experiments, where rats were used to understand the cognitive processes behind habit formation. Put into a T maze, the rats were exposed to a cue that was followed with a reward if they made the right turn. In the initial portion of the experiment, the rat’s brains were always active. As the rats learned the cues, their brain activity was only seen at the beginning and end of the maze. The experiments demonstrated two things: learned behaviours have automatic integration, and are actioned when associated with past rewards3

The Role of Self-Control in Habit Formation

The automaticity in learned habits make it challenging to change them. Take snacking in front of the TV. Similar to the rat study, the cue (television and hunger) triggers an action (eating a bag of chips) and a reward (being full and satisfied). But eating a bag of chips can also be broken down into a series of sub actions: opening the bag, putting a hand in the bag, putting food in the mouth, and then chewing2. During these sub actions conscious processes can still occur, like choosing how many chips to put in the mouth2. The role that subconscious and conscious processes play in habits demonstrate the complexity of health related behaviours2.

Unfortunately, conscious processes aren’t enough to change habitual behaviours. It has been found that self control has little to do with the establishment of new behaviours. Self control is an internal struggle, where we try and stop a part of ourselves from responding in a certain way3. In fact, it has been found that people who appear to have more “self-control” over unhealthy habits actually just experience less conflict to inhibit temptations3. Research suggests that people who are more successful in controlling their behaviour more effortlessly rely on good habits1. Ultimately, the concept of having higher self control is actually just having weak habits for unhealthy activities3

When considering that self control does not play a large role in changing habits, substituting a habit instead of inhibiting a habit may be a better solution. So, when snacking in front of the TV, eating fruit (a new, desired behavior) instead of high-calorie foods (like chips), may be a more effective choice2.

There are two main takeaways here. First, self-control isn’t enough to break the automatic integration of a learned habit. Replacing an old habit with a new one may be more effective. Second, changing habits take time. Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear path to changing habits. But while breaking bad habits is a tough process, it is possible with key strategies and time. 

  1. Application of Transtheoretical Model on Behavioral Changes, and Amount of Physical Activity Among University’s Students – https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02402/full[][]
  2. Habit Formation and Behaviour Change – https://oxfordre.com/psychology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-129[][][][][][][]
  3. Habit Formation and Change – https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352154617301602[][][][][]